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Thad Szabo
Amateur professional/professional amateur astronomer
Amateur professional/professional amateur astronomer

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Right now, I can get my telescope and imaging equipment out of the garage. I check a forecast for transparency and seeing, then consider what I want to shoot. If it's a deep sky object, I think about what's close to the zenith and what might make it through all the light pollution in my backyard. I figure out the optical system (f/10? f/6.3? f/2.3?), what filters I want, and whether to set up guiding. Messier objects are usually a good bet, and there are some other bright sources I can also get decent shots of.

I wonder if, in a few hundred years, we'll have figured out how to reduce the size of equipment needed to image with gravitational waves. It won't be one person in a backyard, but something collaborative. Something like a continual +Global Star Party Live where we ask who's contributing data, and what objects in the Gravitational Wave catalog seem interesting. What frequency bands do we want to monitor? Should we try for that system of mergers in that galaxy cluster where the supermassive black holes are doing their death spiral dance at distances that require weeks of data to pull out the signal with our amateur equipment? Can we get our results on GWAPOD? Will the current site be renamed to EMAPOD? 

Today marks the beginning of some very exciting times. Which collaboration will be the next Herschel family, scouring the sky for outstanding GW sources? How many more detectors come on-line in the next decade? 

What will we learn, and what new questions can we ask?

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Venus occulted by the Moon, 2015-12-07

Yes, it's possible to see both Venus and the Moon during the day. What is less easy is trying to photograph them both through a telescope when there is some intervening cloud cover. These are the 19 decent frames I was able to capture from my driveway. The first image is from 160402 UT, and the last one was taken at 160517 UT. Each frame is a single shot using a Celestron Edge HD 9.25" at f/6.3 with an Atik 314L+ color CCD. Initial processing was done in Nebulosity, with final touches and animation done in GIMP.

Now I need to see what I have to plan to shoot for 2016, including the transit of Mercury on the morning of May 9.
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Venus was occulted by the Moon this morning. Here's a single frame I shot from the event. I have more to process, but right now, getting ready to give my last week of lectures for this semester calls.

You can see I was dealing with a fair bit of clouds for this, and the transparency was highly variable for the event.

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It's taken a lot of effort to get the background this even from frame to frame for an animation, but I think I've finally found a good process for doing so. After taking care of darks and flats in preprocessing in Nebulosity, I use the histogram equalize feature in that program on the frames I want to use. Then, it's on to PixInsight. Automatic background extraction and common color calibration settings work to take out all the light pollution from shooting from an urban area. Make sure to use "divide" rather than "subtract" for the background extraction. Then, use the screen transfer function to automatically adjust each image, transfer the parameters to the histogram stretch, and voila! Nice even light levels from frame to frame, even under variable transparency.

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Asteroid 2015 TB145 - this animated GIF is 69 10 second exposures taken from Long Beach, CA, on 2015-10-31 from 075650UT to 081040UT. Here, the asteroid is seen approaching star cluster NGC 1807, at the top. North is at the top, and west at left. The center of the animation is RA 5h 17m 58s, DEC +16° 16', and it spans an area of 39' 30" by 52' 45". All images were taken with an Atik 314L+ color CCD camera attached to a Celestron Edge HD 9.25" at f/2.3 with HyperStar. No light pollution filter was used. 

And, yes, that is an airplane cutting across the one frame toward the middle of the animation. :-P
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I apologize for not joining the episode of the +Global Star Party last night - I was even imaging at the time! The computer I use for social outreach was being very ornery about running my CCD camera.

Here's a few frames of what I was able to get - asteroid #2015TB145 starting in western Orion and moving into Taurus. It even came within 1 degree of the Crab Nebula at about 1040 UT. Here it is buzzing by where a supernova was observed 961 years ago. We see the remnant of that explosion today as M1, the Crab Nebula.

Think about the time scales here. Each frame in the animation is 20 seconds, which is why the asteroid looks like a streak rather than a dot. This alignment happened because of the fleeting nature of the alignment of the Earth (and my position on it) and the position of the asteroid on their respective orbits. When was the last time we were buzzed by this asteroid? When will be the next time? Did any human observers ever view it as an active comet instead of an inert lump? The star that blew up to form the Crab Nebula had to have a mass between 8 and 25 times that of the sun. We know that because of the pulsar we now observe spinning 30 times every second inside the nebula. A star with that mass is only around for about 20 million years or so. That's a short life for a star, but over 200,000 times longer than the average human. The time that elapses for this animation -- about 5 minutes while it was being recorded -- passes about 7,000,000 times in a human lifetime. And in those five minutes, the neutron  star at the heart of the nebula in the lower right corner spun around 9,000 times.
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I was able to catch a filaprom off the limb of the sun today during visual observation with a 60mm Coronado H-alpha scope. I was running a lab with students using telescopes for the first time, so I didn't have a chance to get out the photo gear to catch it. Did anyone else do so? It would have been visible around 2015-10-07 2230-2300 UT.

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There's a point that I go over every time I go through a syllabus for a class. There's a bit in there about "respecting each other and myself," but I always tell students that respect has to go both ways. I have to respect that they want to learn this material. I have to respect that they need to feel free to ask questions without being made to feel small. I have to respect that they are human beings, not just bodies and minds filling seats in my classroom. I tell them that, if at any point they don't feel respected, they should call me out on that. How are you supposed to learn if your instructor does something - directed at you - that makes you shut off or disengage?
You Are Not Stupid

“So what do you do for a living?” I always cringe a bit when that question comes up among strangers, because when I reveal that I’m an astrophysics professor the response is almost always the same. “Um…wow…. You must be really smart!”

While it’s often intended as a compliment, it really isn’t. Smart didn’t allow me to become an astrophysicist. Hard work, dedication and the support of family and friends did. It’s also one of the most deeply divisive misconceptions about scientists that one can have: scientists are smarter than you. Part of this stems from the idolization of brilliant scientists. Albert Einstein was so smart that fictitious quotes are attributed to him. Media buzzes whenever Stephen Hawking says something about black holes. Any quote by Neil Tyson is a sure way to get likes on Facebook. We celebrate their genius and it makes us feel smart by association. But this stereotype of the “genius scientist” has a dark side.

For one there’s expectation that to do science you must be super smart. If you struggle with math, or have to study hard to pass chemistry, you must not have what it takes. The expectation to be smart when you don’t feel smart starts to foster a lack of self confidence in your abilities. This is particularly true if you’re a girl or minority where cultural biases presume that “your kind” aren’t smart, or shouldn’t be. Lots of talented children walk away from science because they don’t feel smart.

Then there’s the us vs. them mentality that arises from the misconception. Scientists (and fans of science) are smart. Smarter than you. You are stupid. But of course, you’re not stupid. You know you’re not stupid. The problem isn’t you, it’s the scientists. Scientists are arrogant. For example, when I criticized a particular science website for intentionally misleading readers, the most popular rebuttal was that I (as a scientist) was being elitist.

Where this attitude really raises its head is among supporters of fringe scientific ideas. Some of the strongest supporters of alternative scientific ideas are clearly quite intelligent. Presidential hopeful and evolution denier Ben Carson is a neurosurgeon. Pierre Robitaille made great advances in magnetic resonance imaging, but adamantly believes that the cosmic microwave background comes from Earth’s oceans. Physicist and Nobel laureate Ivar Giaever thinks global warming is a pseudoscience on the verge of becoming a “new religion.” None of these folks are stupid.

If there’s one thing most people know about themselves it’s that they’re not stupid. And they’re right. We live in a complex world and face challenges every day. If you’re stupid, you can quickly land in a heap of unpleasantness. Of course that also means that many people equate being wrong with being stupid. Stupid people make the wrong choices in life, while smart people make the right ones. So when you see someone promoting a pseudoscientific idea, you likely think they’re stupid. When you argue against their ideas by saying “you’re wrong,” what they’ll hear is “you’re stupid.” They’ll see it as a personal attack, and they’ll respond accordingly. Assuming someone is stupid isn’t a way to build a bridge of communication and understanding.

One of the things I love about science is how deeply ennobling it is. Humans working together openly and honestly can do amazing things. We have developed a deep understanding of the universe around us. We didn’t gain that understanding by being stupid, but we have been wrong many times along the way. Being wrong isn’t stupid.

Sometimes it’s the only way we can learn.

As it's the beginning of the semester, I'm playing with Stellarium a lot to figure out how the sky will appear for the next four months. It looks like there's a lunar occultation of Venus visible for mid-northern latitudes on December 7 during the daytime. From the Los Angeles area, it begins at about 8am PST (1600 UT) and ends around 9:50am PST (1750 UT). This looks like it's really well placed for most of the U.S. Grab your favorite planetarium program and see if and when it will be visible for you!

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This is an animation of about 2 hours worth of what the Sun looked like in H-alpha through a Coronado 60mm PST this past Saturday. I was able to borrow it from the department for the summer, but didn't use it for photography until the last week before classes started. Active region 2396 (just below center) was motivation to do so. When I saw the giant prominence off the north limb of the Sun, I knew I had to shoot it. The prominence blasting off into space was an added bonus.

Each frame is from the best 250 of a 2000 frame movie that was stacked in AutoStakkert. There are 2 minutes between each frame of the animation. The individual images were processed in PixInsight, and the final animation assembled in GIMP. Images are from 2015-08-08 2212 UT through 2015-08-09 0014 UT.
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